Roe V Wade As you read about this court case highlight any points which suggest that the US Constitution is far from being a rigid and inflexible document but is actually very fluid and open to interpretation. Roe v. Wade was a landmark court case of 1973 in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. Before the Court’s ruling, a majority of states prohibited abortion, although most allowed an exception when pregnancy threatened the woman’s life. The Court overturned these state prohibitions in Roe v. Wade. The Court ruled that states could restrict abortions only during the final three months of pregnancy, a stage when medical experts considered the foetus capable of “meaningful life” outside the womb. The Roe decision aroused extreme reactions in the public. The decision was strongly endorsed by many women’s rights groups that had long sought to guarantee a woman’s right to choose an abortion. However, the decision was fiercely opposed by others, many of whom maintained that life begins at conception. Some of these opponents began the so-called pro-life movement, a campaign to restore abortion restrictions. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion has become one of the most divisive political issues in the United States. Views on abortion have influenced the outcome of many national and local elections. The issue of abortion has also played a decisive role in nomination proceedings for judges appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and to lower federal courts. In the United States, jurisdiction over abortion historically rested with the states rather than with the federal government. Most of these states still prohibited abortion in 1970, when Norma McCorvey, a pregnant woman from Dallas, Texas, first challenged the constitutionality of a Texas abortion law. Using the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” McCorvey sued Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade to be allowed to have an abortion. The Texas law banned abortions in that state, except when the pregnancy threatened the life of the pregnant woman. Roe’s pregnancy did not threaten her life, but as a poor, single woman she did not want to bear a child she could not afford to raise. In addition, she did not have the money to travel to a state where abortions were legal. At the time Wade had said that her pregnancy was the result of rape although she later retracted this claim. Roe and her attorneys asked the federal district court to declare that the Texas abortion statute violated her rights under the Constitution of the United States. They also asked the court to enjoin (forbid) the district attorney from prosecuting anyone else under the Texas abortion law in the future. To the surprise of many legal analysts, a three-judge panel in Texas ruled in favour of Roe, mostly on the grounds that the law violated her constitutional rights to privacy. The court ruled that the 9th Amendment and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution guaranteed privacy rights that were broad enough to protect a woman’s choice to have an abortion. However, because the district court refused to enjoin future prosecutions for abortion, Roe and her attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wade also appealed the decision. The Supreme Court heard arguments for Roe v. Wade in December 1971. After the justices intensely debated the issues, the Court decided 7-2 in favour of Roe in January 1973. Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote the Court’s majority opinion, the written document that announces the Court’s decision and explains its reasoning. At the outset of his opinion, Blackmun noted 'the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy' and the 'vigorous opposing views' held by many Americans. He observed that 'one's philosophy, one's experiences, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one's religious training, one's attitudes toward life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to colour one's thinking and conclusions about abortion.' But having noted these difficulties, Blackmun stressed the need to resolve the issue of abortion based on an interpretation of the Constitution and nothing else. Blackmun then considered an argument that the state had a responsibility to protect the foetus. He agreed this was so, but stated that this responsibility had to be balanced against the concerns of the pregnant woman. Among those concerns was the woman’s right of privacy. Blackmun noted that 'the Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy,' but he also wrote that since at least 1891 the Supreme Court had 'recognized that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy, does exist under the Constitution.' He then mentioned many cases in which the Court had upheld the right of personal privacy in marriage, family relationships, contraception, childbirth, child rearing, and education. He also noted the constitutional protections guaranteeing that the government not intrude into the privacy of the home without a legal cause and a warrant. Despite these examples of constitutional guarantees of personal privacy, Blackmun pointed out that privacy is not absolute. He stated that in some specific cases, the government could intrude on personal privacy. For example, the Court had previously upheld requirements that children be vaccinated in order to safeguard public health and maintain medical standards. Thus, Blackmun rejected the idea that the Constitution protects 'an unlimited right to do with one's body as one pleases.' All of these considerations led Blackmun to develop compromise guidelines that allowed states to interfere with the privacy rights of a woman only during the later stages of pregnancy, i.e after twenty eight weeks. Although the twenty eight week limit on abortions offered some protection for the foetus, Blackmun flatly rejected the idea—put forth by the state of Texas—that a foetus was a person protected by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. (The 14th Amendment says that no state can 'deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.') Blackmun pointed out that all references to a person in the Constitution assume that the person is already born, rather than a foetus. Indeed, the 14th Amendment defines citizens as 'persons born or naturalized in the United States.' Reaction to the Court’s decision was complicated. Among many groups, the decision intensified divisions over the issue of abortion. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and some other religious groups were horrified by the legalization of abortion, which they had long opposed. However, many Protestant churches supported the result, arguing that the autonomy of women was an important concern and that unwanted children were often the victims of abuse and neglect. Most Republicans attacked the Court’s ruling, while Democrats generally endorsed the decision. But support for the ruling initially cut across party lines. For example, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Republican governor of New York, endorsed the decision. Texas Republican politician George W Bush also supported the decision, although later as President of the United States he would strongly oppose abortion. Since the Roe decision, the Supreme Court has heard more than a dozen cases involving attempts by the states or the national government to restrict abortion. In deciding these cases, the Court has modified its decision in Roe v. Wade by allowing states to regulate abortion in many additional ways. However, the Court has always maintained that at least in the first trimester a woman has a right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy. The Court has allowed some states to impose restrictions that make an abortion difficult to obtain, particularly for low-income women and teenagers. For example, in 1977 the Court allowed states to impose restrictions on the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions for poor women. The Court has also upheld state laws requiring that pregnant girls under the age of 18 must notify at least one parent before obtaining an abortion. Many legal analysts have expected the Supreme Court to reverse the Roe decision in subsequent cases involving abortion. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior both promised their supporters they would appoint Supreme Court justices who would vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. Nevertheless, despite five Supreme Court appointments by these two presidents, the core elements of the Roe decision remain intact. The complexity of the Roe decision and its aftermath is illustrated by the changing responses to it by some of the people involved in the case. Norma McCorvey, who sued under the pseudonym 'Jane Roe,' has since become an opponent of abortion. On the other hand, Henry Wade, who was the defendant in Roe because of his position as Dallas County district attorney, claims never to have read the opinion and concedes that 'in some cases abortion is justified.' Polls show most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of abortion. However, more than 80 percent of adults believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances. In a 1997 Gallup Poll, about 15 percent of Americans said they opposed abortion under all circumstances, including cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest or where the pregnancy might lead to the death of the pregnant woman. On the other hand, 22 percent said abortion should be legal under any circumstances. Most Americans—61 percent—believe in a compromise position, declaring that abortion should be legal under some circumstances.
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